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Above: Sutlej is one of the rivers whose waters will flow into the SYL Canal. The proposed canal has been a bone of contention between Punjab and Haryana/Photo: indiawaterportal.org

Though the Supreme Court has asked both the states Punjab and Haryana to solve the contentious issue of sharing the Ravi and Beas waters, there is little hope of an amicable solution in the near future

By Vipin Pubby in Chandigarh

The Supreme Court’s directive to the Punjab and Haryana governments to mutually resolve the vexatious issue of the proposed 214-km-long Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) Canal by September 5 next is a tall order.

The apex court, while dealing with the issue earlier this month, said: “We request the CMs of both the states to form a committee of officers and also to ensure that both deliberate with the intervention of the Central Government at the highest level and, if possible, to work out a solution.” The orders have been passed “without meaning to comment on the merits of the submissions of the rival parties with respect to the executability of the decree (earlier) passed by this court”.

The proposed canal to carry water from the Ravi and Beas rivers, in Punjab, to the Sutlej and farther to the Yamuna in Haryana, has remained a bone of contention since it was conceived in 1981. While Haryana had constructed the entire length of the canal in its territory, Punjab had stringently opposed its construction and flow of additional water from it. The partly constructed canal in Punjab has been severely damaged due to non-use and neglect over the years. The construction work was stopped in the early 1990s following a terrorist attack on the then chief engineer in charge of the construction of the canal. Some parts were also bulldozed a couple of years ago before the highest court intervened and banned the activity.

After the Supreme Court directive, the focus has come back on the issue. While the two governments have agreed to appoint officers to a committee to discuss the issue in association with the central government, given the tough stand taken by both of them, there is little or no hope of an amicable solution in the near future.

Haryana has filed several petitions in the top court, which directed Punjab, even in the past, to complete the construction of the canal, but to no avail. In a letter to PM Modi in 2017, Haryana CM Manohar Lal Khattar had written: “As you are aware, non-completion of a small portion of the SYL canal in Punjab has been depriving Haryana of its full share of 3.5 million acre feet (MAF) water in Ravi-Beas waters for many decades. It is most unfortunate that our farmers in over one million hectares of parched fields and inhabitants of thousands of our villages are being forced to wait for water despite the decree of the Hon’ble Supreme Court dated 15th January, 2002. The entire nation is aware of the unconstitutional methods adopted by Punjab including the passage of the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, 2004 and the Punjab Sutlej Yamuna Link Canal Land (Transfer of Proprietary Rights) Bill, 2016 to impede the construction work.” Punjab, on the other hand, has affir­med time and again that it would not give “even a drop” of additional water to Haryana in view of the acute shortage of water in the state. It has said that the water table in about 80 percent of the state has gone down drastically and it was facing a serious shortage. The flow of water in the rivers concerned had also decreased since the allocations were initially made.

Watery mess

The unilateral annulment of all water treaties by the Amarinder Singh government in 2004, aimed at the SYL canal controversy, included those with other northern states signed since 1955. These include the Indus Water Treaty, 1960, the Punjab Reorganisation Act, 1966, the Indira Gandhi award in 1981 and the Rajiv Longowal Accord, 1985.

The 1955 agreement, signed between Punjab, Pepsu, J&K and Rajasthan provided for allocation of 7.20 MAF surplus waters of the Ravi and Beas, estimated at 15.85 MAF. Rajasthan was allocated 8.0 MAF and J&K 0.65 MAF.

Haryana was carved out after the reorganisation of Greater Punjab on November 1, 1966, and as per Section 78 of the Reorganization Act of 1966, became eligible for the right to receive and utilise the waters available for distribution as a result of the Bhakra Nangal Project and Beas Project, “in such proportion as may be made by an agreement entered into by the said states after consultation with the central government”. As Punjab and Haryana could not arrive at any amicable settlement, the Government of India by its notification dated March 24, 1976, determined the distribution of waters of the Ravi and Beas among Haryana, Punjab and Delhi.

As per the 1976 notification, Haryana was allocated 3.5 MAF, Punjab 3.5 MAF and Delhi 0.2 MAF out of the total water of 7.2 MAF to be allocated amongst the three from the available 15.2 MAF water of the Sutlej, Ravi and Beas. The remaining water was to go to other states, including J&K.

In his reaction to the Supreme Court’s latest directive, Punjab Chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh said talks were the only way to resolve the issue. However, he added that it was imperative for all parties concerned to work together in the interest of the nation as it “threatened to plunge Punjab into a major environmental disaster”. He said Punjab would shortly name officers to the committee and expressed the hope that an amicable solution would be found. Yet, his actions in the past belie any hope of any early resolution of the issue. It was his government in 2004 which passed the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act with the intention to terminate the 1981 agreement and all other pacts relating to sharing of waters of the Ravi and Beas. The law was passed after the apex court had in 2002 asked Punjab to honour its commitment with regard to water sharing with Haryana. This Act was scrapped by the Supreme Court on November 11, 2016 when it declared the 2004 Act “unconstitutional”. It had also directed the centre to mobilise a central agency to take control of the canal works immediately and complete it expeditiously.

Shortly after the Court judgment, the then SAD-BJP government in Punjab, led by Parkash Singh Badal, had de-notified the land acquired for the SYL canal and even returned Haryana’s share, stating that it could not share even a single drop of water with it. The opposition Congress, then led by Capt Singh, had lent support to arch rivals on scrapping the provisions. The government had even encouraged people to level the constructed parts of the canal. This forced the Haryana government to again move the highest court, which then stayed the Punjab government’s proceedings.

The latest Court order seeks to resolve the issue with mutual understanding. With elections to the Haryana assembly due in three months, any climbdown by the ruling party is ruled out.

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